Research & Insights

Star Power: How Celebrities Shape Our Understanding of Breast Cancer

By Wayne Rivera

Patricia Beatrice Lebo, Franz Quehenberger, Lars-Peter Kamolz and David Benjamin Lumenta, Medical University of Graz, Austria

Deciding whether to undergo a mastectomy as part of treatment for breast cancer can be a difficult decision for women to make. But new research from the Medical University of Graz indicates that media coverage of celebrities undergoing preemptive mastectomies and reconstructive surgery can boost public knowledge about options both before and after the procedure.

Published in September 2015 journal, Cancer, the study measured public knowledge about breast reconstructive surgery before and after actress Angelina Jolie’s highly publicized 2013 cancer-related mastectomy.

Researchers Patricia Beatrice Lebo and her colleagues conducted two brief surveys, each with 1000 participants, to measure the effect that Jolie’s mastectomy on public awareness of different options for reconstruction after breast removal. The first survey took place in March of 2013.

The researchers measured the public’s knowledge of interventions related to breast cancer by asking questions regarding participants’ awareness of reconstruction options after a mastectomy and whether they were aware that breast reconstruction could be done either with silicone implants or with their own body’s tissue. For example, one question asked “Do you know that in case of surgical removal of the affected breast, it is possible to simultaneously reconstruct this breast in the same operative session?”

Following Jolie’s announcement of her double mastectomy in May of 2013 a second survey was distributed to test for changes in public awareness of breast cancer related mastectomies and reconstructive options. Additional questions were included to measure awareness of reconstruction options post-mastectomy.

The researchers found a significant increase in public awareness of the possibility of breast reconstruction after a mastectomy for breast cancer. Approximately twenty percent of the sample in the post-Jolie survey reported that the media coverage had changed how they thought about breast cancer reconstructive surgery. These women were more than twice as likely to prefer implant-based reconstruction than those who indicated that media did not impact them.

Lebo and her colleagues note, “We found that the media-related effect triggered awareness regardless of the level of personal involvement of the participants.”

The study also revealed that, when informed of the option, women overwhelmingly prefer to have reconstruction surgery with tissue rather than silicone (66% compared to 8%, with the remainder being unsure). This is in contrast to actual medical practice, where plastic surgeons tend to favor implant-based reconstructive surgery.

Celebrity media events “can serve as a tipping point for raising awareness and improving knowledge concerning a specific disease among the general public,” note the authors.


Wayne Rivera is a frankology contributor and student in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Florida.

Posted: December 30, 2015
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